ONE by one, the miners trapped for 69 days in a dungeon that could have been their tomb far beneath the Chilean desert climbed into a rescue capsule and made a smooth ascent to the surface yesterday.
The rescued men included the oldest and youngest among the trapped. The effort was free of any significant problems, and on track to finish before sunrise local time today.
They were greeted by the embraces of loved ones, cheered by joyous Chileans and watched by a captivated world.
The anxiety that had accompanied the careful final days of preparation broke at 12.11am, when the stoutest of the men, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like chamber and smiled broadly after his half-mile journey to fresh air.
Amid an explosion of cheers, Avalos hugged his sobbing seven-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
Avalos was followed an hour later by the most ebullient of the group, Mario Sepulveda, whose shouts were heard even before the capsule peeked above the surface. He hugged his wife, handed out souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers.
“I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God,” Sepulveda said as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all the miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground as the 33 men. For the first 17 days after 700,000 tons of rock collapsed around them on August 5, no one even knew they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was transfixed by their endurance and unity.
As it travelled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. The rescues came as quickly as 36 minutes apart.
Manalich told a news conference after eight miners were rescued that all of them were in good health.
Chile exploded in joy and relief at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert.
In the capital, Santiago, a cacophony of car horns sounded. In the nearby regional capital of Copiapo, from which 24 of the miners hail, the mayor cancelled school so parents and children could “watch the rescue in the warmth of the home”.
News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish that he “continues with hope to entrust to God’s goodness” the fate of the men.
Grainy footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into the 13-ft-tall capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera showed the pod steadily rising through the smooth-walled tunnel.
After the fifth miner made his ascent — 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest and the father of a month-old baby — the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that gave the capsule a smooth ride through the shaft, then resumed rescues.
The ninth, Mario Gomez, 63 and the oldest miner, dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag. His wife, Lilianette Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him.
Gomez is most experienced of the group, first entering a mine shaft to labour at age 12, and suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He has been on antibiotics and bronchial inflammation medicine. Manalich said Gomez came up with a special oxygen mask.
The lone foreigner among the miners, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.
The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment – and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.
Mining is Chile’s lifeblood, providing 40% of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country’s biggest company, in charge of the rescue.
It went so well that its managers abandoned a plan for restricting images of the rescue.
The last miner was slated to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two and a half weeks without outside contact. The men made 48 hours’ worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow bore hole to send down more food.
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